When Planets Align: Edge Computing’s Game-Changing Potential

Emerging technologies that leverage edge computing will take years -- potentially decades -- to emerge. The smart move is to wait for the hype to settle.

Guest Commentary, Guest Commentary

November 20, 2019

5 Min Read
Image: Pixabay

In 1950, Alan Turing described AI in a paper exploring whether machines can think, and Isaac Asimov brought it to life when he wove previously published sci-fi stories into the masterpiece I, Robot.

However, it would take nearly 70 years for artificial intelligence to impact ‘real life’ in a monumental way -- transforming culture, industries and the economy with help from Siri and Alexa, Pandora, Nest, customer service chatbots, and the predictive algorithms that drive Amazon and Netflix.

It typically takes a long time for emerging technologies to realize their disruptive promise. The full impact occurs only after other catalysts -- enabling technology, societal impetus, regulatory change, some type of infrastructure -- arrive like planets falling into alignment.

In the case of AI, funding and research activity ebbed and flowed for decades as engineers and scientists worked through fundamental obstacles: computers unable to store commands and “remember” what they had done, high costs, inadequate storage and processing power. Over time, computers became faster, cheaper and more powerful, which led to advances in machine learning, natural language processing, abstract thinking, expert systems and deep learning.

In recent years, an additional critical element -- ubiquitous smartphones collecting vast amounts of consumer data -- joined the array and unlocked advances in banking, marketing and entertainment that are redefining commerce and fundamentally changing the way we work, learn and engage with each other.

Now, two more planets are approaching. The Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G network technology are aligning with fast, affordable AI, machine learning, and big data to enable a digital transformation via edge computing.

Edge computing occurs when computational processing takes place on an IoT device, computer, or server close to the source data -- not on distant cloud servers or in remote data centers. This minimizes the need for long-distance communication between client and server, reduces latency and bandwidth use, accelerates data analysis and identifies the subset of data that needs to be transmitted to the cloud or data center for additional processing.

This technological mashup holds the promise of autonomous cars, smart communities, immersive education, and a digital industrial revolution.

GE Digital describes it this way: “Edge computing is not a new concept, but several trends have come together to create an opportunity to help industrial organizations turn massive amounts of machine-based data into actionable intelligence closer to the source of the data.”

Factors aligning like planets to create earth-shaking change. Sounds familiar?

Companies including Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Intel, Cisco, IBM, Hewlett Packard Enterprises, and SAP are leading the way to build this future. Wide-ranging industry sectors -- including energy, automotive, manufacturing, tech, finance, healthcare, utilities, agriculture, retail and consumer goods -- are working to understand the implications for their operations, organizational design, product development, productivity and customer experience.

Dinesh Chandrasekhar, head of product marketing at Cloudera, recently wrote about a potentially life-saving scenario: A mining and transportation company is exploring the use of facial analysis, machine learning and edge processing to immediately alert a truck driver when fatigue is detected on his face, he’s distracted or his eyes are off the road. “The idea is to increase driver safety and prevent loss of life or property in their fleet,” Chandrasekhar wrote. “Now, just think about the possibilities of combining all this data and enriching it with geo-location, weather data, traffic patterns, etc.”

McKinsey recently published 107 use cases for edge computing that it estimated could create a $200 billion hardware market in the next five to seven years. The cases address airplane maintenance, ship navigation, livestock monitoring, energy management, work-site safety, patient health monitoring, traffic and public transit management, air and water quality, solid waste removal, logistics routing and other common, critical activities.

“The benefits of past technology revolutions were concentrated in sectors with heavy tech users, such as financial services,” the McKinsey report said. “For edge computing, sectors that have traditionally been less tech-intensive, such as energy and materials, stand to make substantial improvements in human productivity and safety.”

Companies across every major industry are trying to see around the corner, predict what’s coming, understand the impact it will have on their market, and determine where to invest time, talent and money. There is fear of moving too slowly and being left behind as well as moving too quickly and taking the wrong path. No one wants to miss the next big thing.

My advice: Take a breath. Gartner says only one in four companies are using IoT technologies today. Verizon and AT&T are still rolling out 5G and most of the applications likely to benefit from it haven’t been built yet. In addition to the technological hurdles facing edge computing, industries and regulators will need to address data standardization, consumer data privacy, infrastructure requirements, and difficulty reaching scale.

Remember, decades passed between Alan Turing’s vision of AI and Spotify’s recommendation engine. When it comes to edge computing, the smart move is to wait for the hype to settle, see how all the factors align and then leverage the technology to its maximum potential in your industry and market.


Beth Devin is the Head of the Innovation Network where she oversees Citi Ventures’ emerging technology practice. In collaboration with internal and external partners, Devin’s team stays abreast of frontier technologies and dives deep to understand and experiment with tech that intersects with Citi’s business. By pairing a deep understanding of a technology’s potential and limitations with insight into business priorities and client needs, Citi Ventures can advocate for and support the adoption of next-generation technologies that have the potential to deliver net-new value for Citi clients.

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